Five-thousand pages in: Stephen King’s Dark Tower books

Once upon a time, I used to write 10-pages-in book reviews. I haven’t written one in a very long time, and a large part of the reason for that is that I’ve spent the last six months immersed in the seven books that comprise Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series. I got the first four books for Christmas, and settled in to read them just after I finished the Phillip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy. (It was, in retrospect, apparently a dark Christmas.) It was prolly mid-January when I turned the first page of The Gunslinger, and I was reading book three, The Waste Lands, while waiting for the pitocin to ramp up my contractions in the delivery room when Lucas was born. I took a bit of a breather from reading for those first blurry six weeks or so of his life, and have been charging headlong through to the end of the series since then.

To steal a phrase: what a long, strange trip it’s been.

I loved these books. They moved me, they inspired me, and they gave me the creeping willies more than once. Hell, more than a dozen times. They also deeply annoyed me at times, and I rolled my eyes in exasperation in a few places. I don’t think anyone can maintain perfection through a full novel, let alone seven of them, but much like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, this series was on whole much more good than bad, and the characters and the stories both got deep under my skin and into my head. Especially as I rolled through the last couple of books, I frequently found myself wanting to reach out to Stephen King somehow — to e-mail him, to give him a call, to pace back and forth in front of his fence for a while until he came out for a bit of a palaver*. I wanted to know more, to chew the fat about these characters and this world, to have the chance to savour them just a little bit more.

So what are the books about? This dude named Roland, who lives in a world like ours but not quite ours, is on a quest to the Dark Tower. That’s it in less than 25 words, but it takes about 5,000 pages to get there. It’s about an obsessed man’s single-minded quest, but also about love and friendship and fear and some nasty things that make squelchy noises in the dark — this is, after all, a work by Stephen King. If you’ve read a lot of King’s books, you’ll recognize visiting characters from Hearts in Atlantis, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Stand and a whole whack of others. Towards the end, there’s a surprising homage to the Harry Potter books, and even King himself makes an appearance as a character.

As I’ve written before, I avoided these books for many years. I’d see a new Stephen King book on the bookstore shelves, and then sigh in dismay. “Ugh, another stupid ‘Gunslinger’ book. Bah!” and I’d turn away. In a way, I’m glad I was late to these books, as I truly loved being immersed in the world of the Dark Tower so completely, and for such a long time. The books are set, as I said, in a world like ours but not quite like ours. Eventually, we find out that this world intersects ours, and that there are innumerable parallel worlds (another neat crossover with the central idea of Pullman’s trilogy.) The story weaves back and forth through wheres and whens in this world and others. King has not only sketched a set of alternate universes, but has coloured and contrasted them with their own histories, customs and linguistic quirks. I think this was my favourite part of these books, how rich and textured the worlds are, and after a while it felt less like reading the books and more like inhabiting the worlds. You know how sometimes when you’re reading a fantasy book, it’s like there is a little bit of scenery sort of half-imagined directly around the characters like the shadow of a spotlight, but everything else is kind of hazy? I felt like I could crawl right into these books and the scope of the world(s) around me would just go on forever.

I was fascinated by the fact that this series took Stephen King the best part of his life to write. He started it in 1970, before Carrie was written or published, and finished it a quarter of a century later in 2003. I think that fact contributes to the sprawling, epic feel to the books. In a way, Roland the Gunslinger ages and matures in Stephen King’s real time. Time is major theme in the books, almost a character in its own right.

Stephen King says in the forward to the books that what he wanted to do as a young writer was get inside peoples’ heads. He’s always been able to do that to me, always been able to crawl deep into the tiniest hidey-holes of my soul and shine a light on the bits that I try hard not to think about. In the Dark Tower series, he’s done it again. It’s been called his magnum opus, and I can see why. As I paged relentlessly through the last book of the series, I watched the dwindling amount unread pages with dismay. Now that it’s done, I think I’ll head out into the interwebs to see if I can find a discussion group or fan site somewhere. I’m deeply hooked on Roland and his ka-tet and his quest, and not quite ready to give them up just yet.

*Actual goosebumps raised on my arms when I was reading the afterward to the very final book, and King spoke about how much he values his privacy and how he intentionally obscured details of his location even as he incorporated himself into the stories so as to protect his ever-eroding privacy. To me, it was almost like a personal “thank you” for not disturbing his privacy when I was stalking him that sunny Saturday morning last year. Chills.

Author: DaniGirl

Canadian. storyteller, photographer, mom to 3. Professional dilettante.

7 thoughts on “Five-thousand pages in: Stephen King’s Dark Tower books”

  1. I’ve never really gotten into Stephen King’s books, but your description of this series makes me think I should give him another try. I love an author who makes me feel like I’m inhabiting the world of his/her creation.

  2. I LOVED the Dark Towers series… read it years ago, and I could not get enough… lucky for me, once I was finished one book, I could just pick up the next book in the series and read it right away – unlike my husband who read them as they came out, which was like, years in between books! Thankfully I did not have to wait it out like he did! LOVE Stephen King.

  3. OK, this is huge, but I think you will appreciate it:

    “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” Robert Browning
    (See Edgar’s song in “Lear”)

    My first thought was, he lied in every word,
    That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
    Askance to watch the working of his lie
    On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
    Suppression of the glee that pursed and scored
    Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.

    What else should he be set for, with his staff?
    What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
    All travellers who might find him posted there,
    And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh
    Would break, what crutch ‘gin write my epitaph
    For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

    If at his counsel I should turn aside
    Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
    Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
    I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
    Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
    So much as gladness that some end might be.

    For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
    What with my search drawn out thro’ years, my hope
    Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
    With that obstreperous joy success would bring,
    I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
    My heart made, finding failure in its scope.

    As when a sick man very near to death
    Seems dead indeed, and feels begin and end
    The tears and takes the farewell of each friend,
    And hears one bid the other go, draw breath
    Freelier outside (“since all is o’er,” he saith,
    “And the blow fallen no grieving can amend;”)

    While some discuss if near the other graves
    Be room enough for this, and when a day
    Suits best for carrying the corpse away,
    With care about the banners, scarves and staves:
    And still the man hears all, and only craves
    He may not shame such tender love and stay.

    Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,
    Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
    So many times among “The Band” – to wit,
    The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search addressed
    Their steps – that just to fail as they, seemed best,
    And all the doubt was now–should I be fit?

    So, quiet as despair, I turned from him,
    That hateful cripple, out of his highway
    Into the path he pointed. All the day
    Had been a dreary one at best, and dim
    Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim
    Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.

    For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
    Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
    Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
    O’er the safe road, ’twas gone; grey plain all round:
    Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound.
    I might go on; nought else remained to do.

    So, on I went. I think I never saw
    Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:
    For flowers – as well expect a cedar grove!
    But cockle, spurge, according to their law
    Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
    You’d think; a burr had been a treasure trove.

    No! penury, inertness and grimace,
    In some strange sort, were the land’s portion. “See
    Or shut your eyes,” said Nature peevishly,
    “It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:
    ‘Tis the Last Judgment’s fire must cure this place,
    Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free.”

    If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk
    Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents
    Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
    In the dock’s harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to baulk
    All hope of greenness? ’tis a brute must walk
    Pashing their life out, with a brute’s intents.

    As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
    In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud
    Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood.
    One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
    Stood stupefied, however he came there:
    Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!

    Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
    With that red gaunt and colloped neck a-strain,
    And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;
    Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
    I never saw a brute I hated so;
    He must be wicked to deserve such pain.

    I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.
    As a man calls for wine before he fights,
    I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights,
    Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.
    Think first, fight afterwards – the soldier’s art:
    One taste of the old time sets all to rights.

    Not it! I fancied Cuthbert’s reddening face
    Beneath its garniture of curly gold,
    Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold
    An arm in mine to fix me to the place
    That way he used. Alas, one night’s disgrace!
    Out went my heart’s new fire and left it cold.

    Giles then, the soul of honour – there he stands
    Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.
    What honest men should dare (he said) he durst.
    Good – but the scene shifts – faugh! what hangman hands
    Pin to his breast a parchment? His own bands
    Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!

    Better this present than a past like that;
    Back therefore to my darkening path again!
    No sound, no sight as far as eye could strain.
    Will the night send a howlet or a bat?
    I asked: when something on the dismal flat
    Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train.

    A sudden little river crossed my path
    As unexpected as a serpent comes.
    No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;
    This, as it frothed by, might have been a bath
    For the fiend’s glowing hoof – to see the wrath
    Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.

    So petty yet so spiteful! All along
    Low scrubby alders kneeled down over it;
    Drenched willows flung them headlong in a fit
    Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:
    The river which had done them all the wrong,
    Whate’er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit.

    Which, while I forded, – good saints, how I feared
    To set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek,
    Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek
    For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!
    –It may have been a water-rat I speared,
    But, ugh! it sounded like a baby’s shriek.

    Glad was I when I reached the other bank.
    Now for a better country. Vain presage!
    Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage,
    Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank
    Soil to a plash? Toads in a poisoned tank,
    Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage–

    The fight must so have seemed in that fell cirque.
    What penned them there, with all the plain to choose?
    No foot-print leading to that horrid mews,
    None out of it. Mad brewage set to work
    Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk
    Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews.

    And more than that – a furlong on – why, there!
    What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,
    Or brake, not wheel – that harrow fit to reel
    Men’s bodies out like silk? with all the air
    Of Tophet’s tool, on earth left unaware,
    Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.

    Then came a bit of stubbed ground, once a wood,
    Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
    Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,
    Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
    Changes and off he goes!) within a rood–
    Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.

    Now blotches rankling, coloured gay and grim,
    Now patches where some leanness of the soil’s
    Broke into moss or substances like boils;
    Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him
    Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim
    Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.

    And just as far as ever from the end!
    Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
    To point my footstep further! At the thought,
    A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom-friend,
    Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned
    That brushed my cap–perchance the guide I sought.

    For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,
    ‘Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place
    All round to mountains – with such name to grace
    Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.
    How thus they had surprised me, – solve it, you!
    How to get from them was no clearer case.

    Yet half I seemed to recognise some trick
    Of mischief happened to me, God knows when–
    In a bad dream perhaps. Here ended, then,
    Progress this way. When, in the very nick
    Of giving up, one time more, came a click
    As when a trap shuts – you’re inside the den!

    Burningly it came on me all at once,
    This was the place! those two hills on the right,
    Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;
    While to the left, a tall scalped mountain . . . Dunce,
    Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
    After a life spent training for the sight!

    What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
    The round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart
    Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
    In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf
    Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
    He strikes on, only when the timbers start.

    Not see? because of night perhaps? – why, day
    Came back again for that! before it left,
    The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
    The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay
    Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay,–
    “Now stab and end the creature – to the heft!”

    Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it tolled
    Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
    Of all the lost adventurers my peers,–
    How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
    And such was fortunate, yet each of old
    Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.

    There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met
    To view the last of me, a living frame
    For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
    I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
    Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
    And blew. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”

    I can’t tell from your review whether he ever explicitly addressed his inspiration for the novels or not, but just in case he didn’t, I thought you might like this.

  4. Thanks Andrea!! (It’s actually appended to the last book, and referenced throughout book 7, but still kind of you to add it here!)

  5. I stopped reading Tower books after the Wizard and Glass not because they are bad but because the Wolves of Calla was published almost ten years after the fourth book and at that time I was too busy with my graduate studies, part-time work and a life waiting to be founded. I did not want one or two pages of the book then quit it for months. Now after reading your enthusiastic review, I guess it is time to start again from the very beginning and drink the books non-stop. By the way I am still waiting a book that would top Wizard and Glass…the only book that made me cry…

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